A documentary detailing an Aspen man’s harrowing tale of survival is nearing completion, the man said on Friday.
The film recounts the 1974 crash of a private plane that was taking Andy Godfrey and his family from Houston to Aspen for a ski vacation.
The date was March 1, and Godfrey was 8 years old and excited about his second trip to the ski trails. It would be the persistence of a boy just one year older than Godfrey at the time, a man he was able to track down and who is included in the upcoming film, that saved the lives of Andy and his brother, Mark, then 11.
The pilot was inexperienced in both the plane and flying in the mountains, Godfrey said, speaking recently about the making of the documentary, tentatively titled “Almost Heaven.”
When the plane crashed on Williams Peak near the Sunlight Ski Area, Danny Schaefer and his brother were taking a lift up for the day’s last run. According to Godfrey, Schaefer saw the plane go down and alerted family members, none of whom, despite his vehemence and tears, believed him.
That meant Andy and Mark, who were pinned in the wreckage, spent Friday night and all of the next day and night beside the bodies of their family members. They subsisted on a few snacks, snow and a few small bottles of liquor. They would be the only ones to survive, as their parents and older brother, along with the pilot, all died (a younger sister, Paula, an infant at the time, stayed behind with their grandparents).
On Sunday morning, Schaefer’s father, noticing a search was under way, realized that his son had been telling the truth. Searchers ferried the boy up Sunlight to the spot where he had last seen the plane and, using his directions, a helicopter pinpointed the crash site.
The working title of the documentary is a nod to what happened in the hospital: Aspenite John Denver visited the boys and sang songs with them, including “Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine on my Shoulders” and “Country Roads,” Godfrey said.
“He was just an amazing guy,” he said.
Both boys suffered severe frostbite, and Andy lost four toes on his right foot and half of his big toe on his left; Mark lost his right leg from the knee down and his left foot, Andy said.
Andy, who said he had forgotten to buckle his seat belt before the crash, also broke his arm.
Nearly four decades later, Andy Godfrey found Schaefer in Arizona in 2011, and he agreed to share his story for the camera. Godfrey said that was a big boon for the film because Schaefer has filled in many details of the ordeal.
“There were little pieces and details,” he said. “I knew the chronology of events and had a vague idea of what happened, but Danny clarified” many aspects.
Godfrey, 48, a stock trader, published a first-person account of the ordeal in a local newspaper in 2012. Feedback from the piece included interest from a producer with Paramount Pictures, who wanted to make a movie based on the story.
“I was excited and thought, ‘This is easy,’” Godfrey said Friday. “What we came to realize is that things can be squashed at any point in the process, even after filming.”
After plans for a feature film petered out, Godfrey said a childhood friend introduced him to documentary filmmaker Jojo Pennebaker, son of the legendary director D.A. Pennebaker.
In March, Godfrey and the film team returned to Sunlight and stood in the exact spot where Schaefer was when he saw the plane crash.
“We had never been there before, and we wanted to get that perspective,” he said.
The entire filming process has been a process of discovery, Godfrey said.
For instance, Denver’s singing session with the boys in the hospital was recorded. Godfrey contacted the attorney that manages the late singer’s estate so the songs can be used in the documentary.
The lawyer “was fascinated,” Godfrey said. “He didn’t even know this existed. It shows a wonderful side to [Denver].”
The songs were recorded by someone at the boys’ bedside in the hospital, and since the boys are signing along, they technically own half the copyright. The attorney has “been very supportive” and had no problem with the inclusion of the songs, Godfrey said.
Godfrey said he believes the final piece of filming was completed recently in Houston and that the film may come out in the spring of 2014. He said he didn’t know yet if the documentary will be shown in movie theaters or go the television route.
The father of four said he thinks about the ordeal — which led to his being raised in Aspen by close friends of his parents — probably a couple of times a week.
As for surviving, Godfrey said he refuses to wear a seat belt to this day.
Not doing so “served me well once,” he laughed.